The Paper Bag Princess

Last week, a family friend – a woman who was an active member of founding generation of feminists, in the 1970s – gave my baby daughter a well-known kids’ book called “The Paper Bag Princess.” The book tells the story of a princess whose castle and fancy clothes are destroyed by a fire-breathing dragon. The dragon also carries away her fiance. The princess courageously pursues the dragon, cleverly tricks it, and saves the fiance. Rather than thanking her, however, he criticizes her for her messy appearance. The princess concludes that the prince is actually a “bum,” and the last picture in the book shows her skipping happily off into the sunset alone.

This seems to me to be a real “old school” feminist book, whose ultimate message is that women are more courageous and clever than men, that they should be celebrated for giving insensitive men the what-for, and that ending up uncompromised/ing and alone is a happy ending. (Never mind that it was written by a man.)

Some days, Senator Clinton’s campaign for Democratic presidential nominee felt like an old school feminist campaign, at least when it railed about the sexism that she had to endure. No question, she had to endure some sexist treatment, as she has since she first became a public figure. Senator Clinton’s own individual history also played a role in her experience with the media. But there is something stunningly self-absorbed about those that would focus on Senator Clinton’s gender as the basis of unfair treatment, while subtly but repeatedly playing the race card against Senator Obama.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Senator Obama attracts younger women voters is that those voters don’t necessarily see the world purely in terms of intractable gender conflict. While I would not suggest that the two are moral equivalents, Senator Clinton is of the same absolutist, battle-hardened generation as the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. It may be that a younger generation is more interested in how one might transcend the divisions of race and gender (and sexual orientation, culture, class, etc.) Trying to transcend these deep allegiances can be threatening stuff for people across the political spectrum. Lately, according to Susan Faludi, Senator Obama has been criticized for being not only too “cosmopolitan” and post-race, but also for being somehow post-gender.

So what might this younger generation hope for in terms of policies and personal arrangements? Lisa Belkin published an article last week about truly equal domestic partnerships, within which both partners really share equally in domestic chores. Something like Canada’s parental leave policy would further this agenda in the United States. Here in Canada, new parents have 50 weeks of government-supported leave from their jobs, which can be shared 50/50 between parents. Some families do not choose this particular form of equality – which is perfectly legitimate, of course. The fact that so few families in Canada do split the leave 50/50 is a product of the multiple social forces that Belkin identifies.

When it comes to other aspects of Canada’s childcare policy, though, one sometimes gets the sense that some otherwise progressive and egalitarian sectors of society remain fixated on fighting their battles on the terms defined a generation ago. For example, a few years ago the Canadian federal government (a politically conservative one) replaced dedicated support to registered daycare providers in Canada with cash payments directly to parents, for them to use as they saw fit. The parents can use the money to pay for daycare or other childcare, or they can use it to help one parent stay home. The policy is imperfect, and the money available is inadequate (which differentially affects those parents that choose the daycare option), but it is nevertheless an important choice-giving policy for parents.

The resistance to the policy has been strong in some quarters, not only among institutional daycare advocates, but among some feminists. For some, the problem with the policy is that in practice it provides financial support to reinforce traditional gender stereotypes, and sends the message that mothers in particular should not work while their children are young. But the policy is only retrogressive if one values the ability of women to move into the traditional (and still ultimately anti-family) workplace over womens’ and families’ collective ability to choose for themselves what is best for them. Gender equality in the workplace is unquestionably important and it remains frustratingly unattained. On the other hand, empowered and self-actualized women (and men) could point to lots of good reasons to stitch together more flexible work arrangements, or even to stay home, while their children are young. Perhaps the next piece is to support more creative approaches to careers and workplaces as well.

While the paper bag princess may have chosen to skip off to the sunset alone, many women today may choose to see themselves as part of a more nuanced and collaborative dance that permits them to move in and out of “traditional” gender and work roles, and untraditional ones, across time. As destabilizing as this might be for the old warriors, it is a whole new way to be hopeful about the future.